A month ago, my eldest nephew graduated from high school. Yesterday was his graduation party, and I bought him a book, The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. I picked it up at Target one day and I was stunned by the (potentially accidental) metaphor it is for the kind of people we meet and the way we feel sometimes.
This is the letter I wrote him, taped to the inside of the book:
My dear boy, You are just about the age I was when you were born. I could not have imagined what life would bring between our graduations. From the joyful to the devastating, from the funny to the mundane, life never stops being a surprise, and it should be no other way.
At every moment, I have loved the person you are. From the chubby baby you were, to the toothless flag football player, to the shaggy haired boy, to the honorable man you are today, you have never ceased to make me proud.
Because I am older, I am supposed to impart some kind of wisdom. Because you are so young, you must try to listen. I’ll begin with what is not said often enough: the most true things in life are most often found in children’s books. Dr Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and so many others will speak truth and humor to your soul if you let them.
It’s true that the things you will learn in the next few years will prepare you for life, but I do not mean academics. What you learn about yourself and others will last longer than any Intro to Chinese History class will. The book I’ve chosen for you, The Day the Crayons Quit, is about the people you will meet. You will meet people who:
Like red, are overworked
Like purple, are a little picky and neurotic
Like beige, feel ignored
Like gray, are weary
Like white, feel empty and unimportant
Like black, are more than what they first appear to be
Like green, are mellow and easygoing
Like yellow, is a drama queen
Like orange, wants to feel special
Like blue, is at the end of their rope
Like pink, feels overlooked
Like peach, has been left out in the cold
And like Duncan, who just wants everyone to get along.
My dear boy, with all you are, try to handle each person as best you can. Learn to be the best kind of friend to all kinds of people. Notice who is around you and strive to make their lives better.
But Poke, don’t forget that you will often feel like these crayons as well. You will feel mellow, overworked, and all the rest, sometimes in the same day. Feeling this way is ok, but you must never let them push you to quit. Use each of these things to push you to continue to grow, to become a full, complete person.
The days ahead are an adventure only you can live. It is one of my greatest joys to get to be a part of this adventure.
Congratulations on your graduation, and with excitement for all that is to come, welcome to your next chapter!
I love you, Aunt Cindy
There are parts of the world that I am not dying to see, and art exhibits that bore me pretty quickly. One thing inhabits both of these lists: Egypt. Whenever I’m at the Art Institute with my sister, she could spend all day in the ancient Egypt collection while I quickly get to the point where my brain is screaming “oh look: another chipped clay pot, just like the last 700 you’ve seen.” My desire to visit Egypt is lessened quite a bit by its recent political climate, but I have to say, the biggest draw for me are the pyramids that showed up in the background of story books when I was a child.
They aren’t amazing because of what they look like, but because they are a testimony of greatness and power. Over decades and decades, thousands of nameless people slaved -literally- to turn crappy limestone into something great enough to house the holiest, most esteemed people of their society. One brick at a time, they carried and stacked. Each brick unimpressive on its own, like millions of tons of other limestone rocks all over the planet that go unnoticed every day.
A year ago, my life felt as barren, hot, and miserable as that desert must have been. I wanted out, but to imagine successful life on the outside was as insane as the ancient Egyptians dreaming up the first pyramid. I wasn’t the first, though. Thank God, I wasn’t the first. I had two in particular who were my own pyramids, Cory and Christin. Both had left and built their own pyramids, so I wasn’t as afraid to build mine.
How long would it take you to build your life if woke up tomorrow with no job, home, car, phone, insurance, credit, and only $374 to finance your move to another state? It’s a hell of a thing to envision, and even imagining it beforehand is nothing compared to living it.
No one, and no previous experience prepares you for building your pyramid. I wasn’t on my own – I had family and friends who have been an unquantifiable amount of help, but it’s both a solitary and community effort. Every tangible bit of building a pyramid is the result of the mental work that goes into it. Sometimes, the mental work involved was coming to the weary, humbling conclusion that I needed someone else to carry and place a brick for me.
And the only way to see any results is to just keep going.
Ten months and fourteen days ago, I packed everything I owned in a uHaul, unloaded it into my parents’ garage, and started over, covered in scars that still feel raw from time to time. I did a lot of pride-swallowing and took the exact job I swore I would never take after college and worked enough to buy a car. Stock up on some interview clothes. Pay for my coffee at Starbucks where I used their free WiFi to look for a job that I didn’t hate.
Slowly, bricks were laid, even when I wasn’t looking. Wounds healed, friendships unfolded, nightmares lessened and dreams took their place.
Today, I signed the lease on an apartment. A one bedroom apartment at the end of a street lined with old trees in a small town just outside of a university bubble. It feels like a very significant brick. It’s just a couple miles from where I live now, in a town that has managed to feel more like home in three months than anywhere has in a long, long time.
I’m going to move in over the next week, with the help of more friends and family. For the first time in three years, I’ll get to put my Christmas decorations up. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I’ll have a space to invite friends into – until now, it seemed like I either had space or friends nearby, but rarely the two together.
My pyramid has a really long way to go, but today feels good. It feels like I get to finally believe that I wasn’t crazy to think about the possibility of life of the outside. Individually, the bricks laid in the last year aren’t much to brag about, but let me assure you: they were heavy, they were necessary, and they took a hell of a lot of effort. So when I look at these little silver keys in my hand, they are a lot more than just keys. They are big, gigantic bricks in my pyramid.
The last six months have been an interesting opportunity to rediscover – or perhaps discover – my faith without feeling like I have to fit into any one predetermined list given to me by a denomination or church.
Earlier this week, a friend caught some flack for not attending church every Sunday, especially because the critic was worried about her kids growing up not attending on Sundays. It astounded me, in part because this friend has been Jesus to me over and over, showing grace, love, humor, and giving guidance so freely. Her kids have beautiful, generous, happy souls who seek to serve and love people while they are little minions of faith. I don’t know her husband well, but as far as I can see, he believes in his family, is faithful to them, and is a pretty great guy. How much more Jesus-y can a family get? They aren’t “unbelievers,” but in this season, Sunday morning church isn’t how they experience God and grow in faith.
My job means that I don’t get to go to church on Sundays. I miss it. I ache to go to my church again.
I’ve talked with a lot of people about what it means to be a Christian and how the church fits into that. I know a heartbreaking number of people who are stuck between being a Christian because it’s what they believe and feeling like they’re too battered by the church to return to it. If it weren’t for my friends and my new church, that’s where I would be.
Last week, a customer was trying to bait me into an argument by asking me to label him with terms he would then take offense to. I didn’t take it. At one point, he strayed into the field of religion and asked what I am. I said Christian, he asked what denomination. I said that I attend the United Church of Christ, but I am not an official member of any particular congregation. It got me thinking, though.
My faith is vastly different than what it was a year ago. It is freer, happier, and far more open. If I had to define it, I’m not sure that I could, but here is what I have so far:
1. I have faith that there is a God. A genderless, omnipotent God, and that God loves people, both collectively and individually.
2. The best way to honor God is to to follow the command to love God and others.
3. Jesus is divine, and the best way to understand what it means to love God and others is to follow his example and take his message -LOVE- seriously.
4. There was no asterisk after “others,” so I don’t get to exclude anyone, as much as I would like to.
5. All truth belongs to God. So of I find truth in science, or a Baha’i writing, or through meditation, it’s OK because God is the god of all truth.
6. God forgives people, so I must, too. That includes forgiving myself.
7. I have no opinion on eschatology, other than the opinions that those who fixate on it are typically dangerous, and that it is far beyond my control or scope of comprehension.
8. I don’t get to determine who has salvation, but I am pretty sure its a much larger crowd of people than I can imagine. I am not a total universalist, and I think that those with hard, hateful hearts are unlikely to have salvation. I haven’t been convinced of any specific fate for those who don’t.
9. I think a lot of the things that are focal points of taboo behavior in conservative churches are legalistic garbage that hides far bigger, more dangerous sins like pride, malice, and greed.
10. The best of me is actually a reflection of God that others get to see, and I am at peace when I remember to use all my words and actions as a prayer.
That’s pretty much it. I have a ton of questions and my faith will no doubt be shaped into something altogether new by next week. It really comes down to six elements: God, me, others, love, humility, and peace. When I am in a place where those elements are well balanced, life is good. When they get our of balance, I need to do what is needed to get it back.
It seems to have taken a lot of life to get to this point, but taking the religion out of my religion has revolutionized, restored, and reinforced my faith.
I’m not a superstitious person, for the most part. I don’t believe a lot of old wives tales or fear urban legends.
But I do think that sometimes, God has interesting ways of getting our attention, and today, it seems like from the minute I woke up until just a few minutes ago, I am seeing signs everywhere. Little random accidents that just don’t seem to be quite so random.
I woke up thinking about an old friend early this morning. Fell back asleep and he was in my dream, and then when I woke and looked at my phone, his Facebook post took up the whole screen. Then, all day long, for reasons I don’t understand, his name popped up on my phone over and over in a bunch of weird contexts, as well as hearing his name (well, first name) said on the radio. And while I was in the van, the song that reminds me of him was played, a song that hasn’t been on the radio in a while.
Probably as a result of the last eighteen months of ridiculous introspection and intentional efforts at self-improvement, I can’t seem to shake the feeling lately that there are barriers between me and who I want to be, and it has felt like I’m struggling to get out of a sweater that is three sizes too small. Confined and hemmed in, I can’t even move the way I need to in order to shed it, so instead, it’s a weird kind of wriggling to see if I can get it to a point that I can finally be free.
Today, though, there has been an endless series of comments, posts, and songs about change, new chapters, and risk. I’m not sure what to make of it, but the general consensus is to be bold and go with it. I’ve taken some risks lately, but this seemed to hint at a bigger one. I was about to dismiss the signs when I accidentally hit the wrong button on my iPod and suddenly a song from the animated movie Anastasia started to play: “Heart don’t fail me now. Courage don’t desert me; don’t turn back now that we’re here. People always say life is full of choices. No one ever mentions fear, or how the world can seem so vast, on this journey to the past…” I am certainly a far cry from an orphaned Russian princess, but it really does fit the rest of the day.
Not exactly a string of burning bushes, but noticed nonetheless.
I couldn’t help but hear the refrain from Five Man Electrical Band’s Signs running through my head: “Signs, signs, everywhere signs. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs?”
Well, no, actually, I can’t. I don’t know what to do with this mess of things. I’m good at over thinking things. Really good at over thinking things. When I over think things, I tend to get my brain into trouble. So I decided that I would try to not over think them and respond with “Ok, God, I’m listening.” And wait to see how God answers.
Did you ever look in the mirror so long that your face doesn’t make sense any more? It just becomes all these shapes. Just shapes. Not good or bad. ~Noelle; The Truth About Cats and Dogs
Some days, I don’t know that I recognize myself. CS Lewis once said something about how it feels like nothing ever changes but when we stop and consider things, we realize how vastly different they are. I don’t know what the exact quote is, but you can google it if you want.
See that? The old me wouldn’t have thrown a paraphrase out there and left you to figure out if I’m BSing you or not.
The me from two weeks ago would not think that I’d have gone on and blogged about a weird date on Friday. The me from three months ago would not have bought jeans with tiny, classy sparkles on the butt pockets (nor would she have thought that sparkles on butt pockets could ever be classy, but Jones New York proved me wrong on that one). The me from four years ago would never have thought that I would lose 70 pounds without amputating a leg or getting tape worm.
The old me didn’t wear bright red lip stain, or speak up for myself, or successfully keep a houseplant alive.
I am occasionally sure that I like the me I am today. The old me didn’t think much of herself.
But sometimes, the new me and the old me collide. The new me does something brave and then the old me gets instantly anxious about it. The new me does a really good job at being consistent with the gym and eating better and then the old me takes the one “bad” day and tries to undo all my progress. Or I get excited about buying a cute dress and then old me freaks out about the fact that it touches my skin. I make new friends and open up to people while old me is certain that they’re fake and just waiting for a chance to betray me.
It makes me wonder which me is me. Is the new me a facade? Am I capable of all the changes I want to make? Is the new me any better, or am I just fooling myself? All these months of introspection and evaluation and all I can say is that right now, I am. And I don’t have to make sense of all of me tonight. I suppose that that’s an act of being kind towards myself.
Anyone who has moved a few times as an adult has had the same thought: “I have too much crap. And I’m going to get rid of it all.”
Most of us have promised ourselves that someday, we are going to take the time to weed through it all and get rid of everything we don’t need. Simplify. Declutter.
And, if you’re like me, you start working on it here and there but never get anywhere, really, until it’s time to move and before long, all that crap is shoved in a box and carted off to the next place. I’ll sort it when I unpack it, I say. Fast forward to me lugging boxes around that haven’t even been opened in three or four moves.
I no longer have anything stored at my parent’s house, which means those precious boxes of middle school yearbooks and fourth grade art projects spent the last few years stacked in MY garage. I don’t know what to do with them. When you’re 13, camp trophies look just fine on a shelf in your bedroom, but at 33, what do I do with them? I can’t quite throw them away, despite the fact that they’re just bits of stone and plastic, so there they sit, wrapped in newspaper and shoved in a box. It’s not even like I’ve got kids who will someday stumble upon then in an attic somewhere.
Unfortunately, it gets worse than old camp trophies. My early adulthood was really nomadic, and sometimes, my moves came without much warning or during a lot of chaos, so I developed a bad habit of not getting rid of anything because I didn’t have the time or mental energy to sort through it all. Everything worthwhile and otherwise was all swept into boxes, taped up, and carried onward, just hoping that I could deal with it eventually.
For a long time, that’s how my whole life felt: always in transition, never time to sort out the thoughts in my head, overwhelming to pick through, and so I just didn’t. I couldn’t. So I swept all the thoughts together, worthwhile and otherwise, and held onto them, hoping that someday I could make sense of them all.
In the Great Reorganization of Cindy effort that has been going on for about 10 months, I’ve had a chance to sort through some of the thoughts in my head. What I am realizing is how very wrong some of the thoughts have been: opinions about myself, anxiety about how others see me, feelings towards other people, relationships that are needlessly difficult (and sometimes needless), undue pressure on myself, unrealistic expectations… the pile of garbage thoughts is sometimes pretty big.
I can’t just dump them all, however; tangled in there are some pretty good thoughts: realization of what I am good at and what I do well, awareness that I’m loved and supported, relationships that motivate and keep me going, grace for myself and others… There are a lot of beneficial realities that have always been there, but I wasn’t as able to see them because they were always a jumbled mess.
Sorting them out is a hard, ugly, dirty job at times, but I’m working on it.
While packing boxes for the last five weeks, I’ve sorted through all the tangible stuff I own. Having lost just under sixty pounds, I had four big garbage bags of clothes to take to Goodwill. Why hold onto clothes that don’t fit? I got rid of all the half-broken kitchen utensils and odd dishes and ratty towels. Why keep things that aren’t useful? I threw out gobs of paper, moldy books (flood-damaged), and old homework assignments. Why keep information that isn’t relevant anymore and, in the case of the mold, is toxic to touch?
Oh, but there were good things found, too! Forgotten pictures of grandparents who died years ago, recipe cards from my grandma, a tiny ceramic unicorn from my aunt, margarita glasses from my younger days, and yes, a couple of camp trophies. It took me hours, but I went through every box I own, and surfaced with a much smaller, much more valuable collection to repack and take with me to Iowa.
I don’t envy my garbage man today; I stood in the window and watched as he loaded more and more useless, broken junk into his truck to haul away. Truth be told, he had the easier job. He hasn’t spent the last five weeks staring at 33 years worth of my life. He didn’t have to look at all those huge clothes and remember what it felt like to be there. He didn’t have to throw out all those old bank statements and remember what it was like to not be able to afford food. He just got to take it away.
Between the stuff I took to Goodwill and the stuff I threw away, I’d wager I got rid of 1/3 of my possessions in the last couple of days. My friend Timothy would probably cry if he saw how much went to the dump (sorry, buddy).
On the flip side, it felt really good to know that all the stuff loaded onto the truck today is the stuff I want to be taking with me. It feels so good to know that the stuff I set out on the curb is never coming back.
I wish it was that simple to get rid of the garbage thoughts in my head. I wish I could just set them at the end of the driveway and not worry about them anymore, but that’s not quite how brains work. It takes time and constant effort to keep them out. I’m trying. I ask myself the same questions about my thoughts as I do my things: why keep it if it doesn’t fit, isn’t useful, is irrelevant or toxic? I don’t always succeed, but I’m getting better at it, and that’s all I’m asking of myself.